right, wrong, and grace

But over the past ten years, God has been peeling. Peeling and peeling the layers of me. And I am confronted often by who I think I should be and who I am.

And why.

Total honesty: I had a post all ready. Filters for our words, part two: on husbands and social media. Ready to go today.

And then, this thing happened.

A big to-do in the world I come from. And I was sad. Mad. Vocal. I researched. I followed. I watched and I listened. I was outraged. I was grieved.

And then, suddenly, I snapped out of it. For that, I thank my sister, and my husband, the “Ain’t nobody got time for that” lady . . . and the lovely squash I baked for dinner.

I got sucked into a “foolish controversy” yesterday. A “wrangling of words” with some people who are always right. Even when they use faulty metrics from sources they usually oppose, fail to practice principles of confrontation they preach, and paint condemnation with broad brush strokes.

It is surreal. And sort of painful . . . to collide with the world that shaped my mind as a new adult.

I struggle so much with this, this legalism, that took hold of me. The wrongness of them. The rightness of us.

The need to be right is just part of who I am. I can’t entirely blame that on my education. But it was certainly nourished there.

It felt good to be surrounded by people who thought exactly like me. If we differ on nuance, fine. Let’s just not make it an issue. Honestly, I don’t like to fight. Right felt right.

But over the past ten years, God has been peeling. Peeling and peeling the layers of me. And I am confronted often by who I think I should be and who I am.

And why.

And the who I think I should be is weighted so heavily with the years of sermons and books, and principles and seminars. I look back and find no place for the woman whose husband is a Christ-follower & church leader — and yet struggles with pain and addiction to pain pills . . . And suddenly I am there again . . . lost in a world of blue blazers and khaki dress pants, confused by how being right made you live right, because it didn’t. All the rightness in the world did not equip me to deal with addiction.

Yesterday, I thought of all the years of my life I wasted. Believing that certain denominations were wrong and therefore had nothing good to offer and all the while, in a “seeker friendly” — and therefore wrong — mega church on the other end of L.A., a program was launched that held the keys to my salvation.

12 Steps. Imagine that.

Biblical principles to release both Dave and me from bondage to secrets and shame. Truth, through which I finally understood my actual need for God even though I had known Him all my life and had been grounded in solid theology (with a degree from the right school to prove it). And through which I came face to face with the reality of God’s grace. Grace sufficient for me. Power made perfect in weakness.

A place where people prayed over me and Dave with a passion I had never heard in all my life. A place where we sang songs with repetitive choruses, read from a different translation of the Bible, wore t-shirts, and were preached to by recovering addicts. A place where we grieved, and celebrated.

I had never experienced Church like that.

And I broke. The pride. The fear. The defense . . .

. . . but the peeling takes time. These layers are thick.

I listen. I study. I read. I pray. I ask God to give me a heart of compassion rather than rightness (believe me, I have a full tank of that). I fail. I retreat. I strive for perfection. I believe knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. And yet, still, I lean toward the comfort of knowing . . .  it’s just so much easier than love.

I am surrounded now by people with whom I don’t always feel completely at home. I don’t take for granted that we see eye to eye on finer points of doctrine. My closest friends worship in churches my education taught me preach a false gospel. And yet, I witness in their lives a deep communion with Christ,  and in their churches a stronger commitment to reaching out in Jesus’ name with actual love and help for the hurting — doing what Jesus would do. And I’ve been studying what they teach — from their writers — the core of what they really believe — and it’s there in Scripture — in interpretations dating back to the earliest days of the Church. And I am beginning to see how so much of what I once believed about them was based on caricature and representations and not reality.

This week, I appreciate anew that I am in a church where I am learning to have a spirit of love along with a spirit of discernment. I was — and still am — sorely lacking in actual grace. For others, as well as for myself.

I’m not always comfortable with grace. I am still overly concerned about appropriate attire (as though poor fishermen had Sunday finery). I am still self-conscious of movement, of kneeling to pray, of closing my eyes and shutting out the world to sing.

And I am slow to raise my hands.

* * * * *

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling;  one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.

— St. Paul, Ephesians 4:1-5

on being fragile

Brushing teeth in Brooklyn
Annette brushes her teeth.
Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress Collection

Last year, or the year before, my dentist told me I needed gum surgeries. And I didn’t go back.

Cut gum tissue from the roof of my mouth. Sew it to my receded gums. Heal. And repeat. No thank you.

But now I’m in pain . . .

I HATE going to the dentist.

No. ReallyViolently hate.

I once stormed out of our newlywed apartment, marched furiously through our sketchy neighborhood until it was nearly dark, got home and locked myself in the bathroom until my bewildered husband apologized for his offenses.

All he’d said was you have to have a regular dental check up.

Well, he kind of insisted . . . and I would have none of it.

. . .  I’m sure I’ll have to have a teeth cleaning, also known as torture . . .

the gag reflex awakened by Xray cards that bore holes in my mouth, the electric shock of hitting a nerve on my intensively sensitive exposed roots,the stabbing of my inflamed gums, the tugging at the tartar behind my front teeth until it feels like they’re being yanked out, the inevitable lecture on flossing . . .

I don’t stay with dentists for long.

As soon as they expect me to keep regular appointments, I disappear.

* * * * *

But I go . . . more than a little ashamed I waited so long.

And I repeat to myself: it’s not chemo. And I picture my sister, a cancer survivor and my “patron saint” of all things I think will kill me.

And I take my nine-year-old for moral support . . .

I am sure there are notes in my chart. About how I clench my jaw when they clean my teeth. About how I don’ t keep appointments. About the time I grabbed that other hygienist’s hand away from my mouth and begged her to be more gentle . . . Or maybe the notes just say be careful.

How long has this pain been going on? the dental clinician asks.

An embarrassingly long time, I tell her. I am compelled to apologize.

She kindly assures me it’s okay. And does not dismiss or chide my fears of infection.

The dentist says kind things about my receding gums — that I know are notably worse — calling me an “over-achiever” in my tooth brushing, a perfectionist.

She pokes around my mouth and does not send me through the roof. She is always like this, my dentist. But usually I have to endure the torture before I see her, so I forget how kind she is.

She tells me about the hole in my exposed root. She tells me there’s more now than just gum surgery. And she takes my tight face in her hands and looks me in the eyes and says, I know. I had gum surgery, too. But you have to do this. 

And I feel better. So much that I call to make all the appointments as soon as I leave her office.

* * * * *

A few weeks back, on a Sunday morning, I started a post all about how much I hate going to the dentist. (My teeth have been achy for quite a while.)

I wrote and wrote. Dave left to do his Sunday duties. The kids waited in the car for me instead of me for them. And we pulled into church nearly a half an hour late.

We rushed through the foyer, still full of first-service social stragglers, and my eyes landed on my favorite church greeter.

Seeing his face brought back the years when going to church was painful. 

Years of wanting to be there to sing the songs that were an ointment to my heart. To pray. To hear sermons of grace that gave me hope as though written just for me.

But I didn’t want to see all the people. To talk to them. To answer questions.

To hear about marriage and homeschooling and all the ways my life could not measure up.

Not every time. But enough.

I just wanted to slip in and out quietly and unnoticed back then. Not to be early and not make a grand entrance.

The days migraines or withdrawals kept Dave at home in bed. Or we’d had a fight. Or I was on the verge of breaking. Or I was overwhelmed with managing the children alone.

I heard Where’s your husband? Or We haven’t seen you in a while.

Or had a dreadful march to the front row where there are lots of seats.

Later, when the healing began, but I still hurt. I was late to church on purpose. To avoid.

And I felt guilty because I knew I was wrong.

But my favorite greeter has never said those things. And he’s never seated me up front.

Whether I’m ten minutes late or thirty, he gives me a big smile, hands me a bulletin, opens wide the door to the sanctuary and says:

You’re just in time.

Simple words that always make me feel welcome — just as I am.

* * * * *

There’s no chart at Church. No notes.

Nothing to say this one is hurting.

We don’t even wear a color to signify mourning anymore.

But there are people just like me coming to church in desperation.

Because it finally hurts so much they’ll endure small tortures just so they can be healed. 

Healed by Jesus — who they forgot is always kind and gentle.

Some haven’t been in a while. Hoping no one notices it’s been so long. Maybe apologetic.

The notes are written on the face. In the eyes . . .

. . . I’m fragile.

Sometimes it takes a while. To trust.

Do we speak simple words that encourage them to come back?

Or do we use the tools? Questions. Comments. Statements.

Do they leave strengthened to do the hard thing they have to do next?

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “for you are very precious to God. Peace! Be encouraged! Be strong!”As he spoke these words to me, I suddenly felt stronger and said to him, “Please speak to me, my lord, for you have strengthened me.” Daniel 10:19